Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Baby's birth weight shows mother's health

baby in NICU
A birth weight in a broad normal range signals low heart attack risk in mothers, but extremely low or high birth weights may double the risk. Even the health of fathers, to a much lesser extent, seems to be related to the birth weight of their offspring. This is the result of an Israeli study in more than thirty thousand mothers and fathers, respectively, where birth weights of offspring and mortality of parents have been assessed.

Good news for mothers of babies born in the normal range of 2500 grams (5 lb 8 oz) to 4000 grams (8 lb 13 oz): Their risk of death from heart attack is lowest. Compared to these mothers, the heart risk is approximately double in mothers who give birth to smaller or bigger babies. In contrast to the U-shaped curve in mothers, it is linear and much less pronounced in fathers: With growing size of their offspring, their risk of death from any cause slightly decreases by about five percent of the total risk in best case. Other than in mothers, birth weight is not particularly linked to the heart attack risk in fathers.

Genes and long-term consequences

To what extent genes and environment play a role here is not yet clear. The association to fathers' health clearly points to genes. In addition, birth weight is inherited to a certain extent: Women who have been born with low weight have a tendency to give birth to low weight babies as has been shown in a Swedish study. A vast number of studies have linked low birth weight to bad health later in life, up to the old age.

It is good to know the risk

While parents cannot change their genes, they can make sure not to smoke and to avoid secondhand smoke in pregnancy. Once a baby is born low-weight, a healthy lifestyle is important not only for the baby but also for the parents, in particular for the mother. There are so many risk lowering factors that can be changed - being physically active, eating fruit and vegetables, enjoying life and coping with stress - that a known risk can be more than compensated.

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